Authors: Jenny Ruden
“It's supposed to be beautiful, Bee, and isn't the camp located at California University of the Pacific?”
I nodded, unimpressed.
TJ straightened his collar. “That's one of the best colleges in the country.”
I stared at the restaurant fans spinning lopsidedly on the ceiling.
“Besides,” he went on, “the camp's website didn't look bad. It's pretty posh. Famous people go there.”
“I'll hate it,” I said.
“How do you know that?”
“I just know.”
TJ chirped this part, like a bird. “You could meet great people, see the country, and fall in love.”
“You sound like the brochure.”
“And who knows,” he said, snapping open a napkin theatrically, “you might even lose weight.”
There we have itâeven more reality hovering between us, like the steam from the egg roll I just split open.
Before we visited the buffet table where vats of food bubbled, TJ appeared some chopsticks from behind my ear, and then, a dollar. He kept appearing objects (a penny, a shell, a tamponâ WTF?!) until I smiled. Maybe most boys gave up magic tricks by age nine, but TJ wasn't most boys. TJ had skill. Finesse. Magic was like a fever he caught and never let go. While other people suspected he had a knack for magic, even for dove training, only I knew how obsessive he was about itâand how professional. Magic tricks were the one thing he reserved for me.
He rounded the buffet and claimed beef and broccoli, his favorite. I slopped some lo mein and chicken fried rice on my plate. As we made our way back to the table (no booths here), all the things I wanted to say inched up my throat. Now would've been a good time, for instance, to bring up the unfortunate fact that I loved him, still, even after everything that happened between us last year. I might mention the three thousand miles that separated Baltimore from California. Or I could ask him, “Don't you want me to stay?”
But when I caught sight of our table, I noticed that my drink, originally a Sprite, had turned a putrid yellow. Liquid smoke tumbled from the glass.
“Now isn't that interesting,” noted TJ, nodding toward my beverage.
I swallowed the words crawling up my throat and decided to play along. Truth be told, I never got tired of his illusions. “How strange, TJ,” I said in my best TV voice. “I thought for sure I ordered a Sprite.”
“That's definitely not a Sprite, Bee,” TJ replied. “That looks dangerous.”
Fog funneled around our table and drifted over my thighs in an icy cloud.
“Dare me to drink it?” I asked. He knew his lines. I knew mine. Our exchange was like a dance.
TJ shook his head. “I wouldn't swallow that if I were you.”
I reached for the glass brimming with a liquid so yellow it could've been pee.
TJ feigned surprise. “Oh my goodness, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, signaling to a nonexistent crowd. “Will she drink it? Will she really drink it?”
I swirled my glass, and raised it high. Smoke swooshed from my cup. “A toast,” I said.
In response, TJ lifted his normal cola-colored drink.
audition,” I said, a little emotionally. “To your summer.”
TJ cocked his head. “And to your utopia,” he replied. “May it be everything you imagine.”
Our cups tapped each other's, and I hastily swallowed. “Blech!” I exclaimed. “Can I drink this stuff? I mean, it's kind of sour-tasting.”
TJ appeared to ponder this. “The doves never showed any toxic reaction to the powder. I'm sure it's fine. I mean, does it taste poisonous?”
And even though it tasted really bad and was probably radioactive, I drank it. Every last bit. “Not at all,” I said, trying my hardest to enjoy it. I mean, I wouldn't see him all summer. I figured it was the least I could do.
WHEN TJ AND I got back to my house after dinner, my heartbreakingly beautiful sister, Jackie, motioned us to her closet. She pried it open slowly to reveal Doug, her boyfriend, hiding inside.
“Shhhh,” he shushed.
“He's going to help us drive across country,” Jackie whispered. “Don't tell Mom, OK? She would freak if she knew I was bringing him to California. She doesn't even want him in the house!”
Doug grinned moronically beneath my sister's color-coordinated hangers. If you wanted to know the truth, I didn't want him in our house either. A cross-country road trip with the guy kind of made me want to stick daggers in my eyes.
“It was supposed to be just me and you, Jackie. This was our road trip.”
“Sorry,” Jackie replied. “Plans change.”
“Mom will murder you if she finds out.”
“But she won't find out, right?” She elbowed me hard. “Right?” She looked to TJ. “Right?”
Then my sister flitted around her room like perfection itself, gathering camping equipment and condomsâtossing them to Doug. Even though my sister was twenty and I was sixteen, neither of us had ever been west of Maryland. Months ago, Jackie begged my mom for the chance to drive across country and bum around California for the eight miserable weeks I'd be bumming around fat camp. But months ago a road trip with Jackie might have actually been fun. Not now. Now Jackie was a real pain in my ass.
“I'll need help driving,” she said, touching the dance costumes and majorette uniforms she'd long since retired. “All those bridges and freeways, I might get lost.”
“Doug can't even drive,” I reminded her.
Jackie's boyfriend cleared his throat. “I can read a map though,” he said.
“Who needs a map?” I asked. “Ever hear of GPS? Every phone's got it.'' Jackie and Doug ignored me. “Doug's always wanted to see California, and you'll be at camp, remember? For eight whole weeks. You're going to get so skinny,” she tittered, crisscrossing the cord around her hair dryer. “You must be jazzed.”
Eventually, TJ and I resigned ourselves to the dark basement because, in all honesty, the springy sofa and dark-paneled walls provided more comfort than my sister and Doug ever could. Besides,
started at eight. TJ's main ambition in life was to perfect a magic routine that would land him on the show. Convinced it was his only shot out of going to community college, TJ had been practicing forever. First came card tricks. Then there were the doves he trained to burst from stranger's hats and sleeves. Let's not forget the color-changing microorganism he'd used on my Sprite earlier. Recently, though, TJ brought it to a new level. Now, it was all about illusion. Specifically, levitation.
TJ and I watched
just like last Sunday night and the one before that. We critiqued the voices, dance moves, and talent routines.
“She can't sing!” I screamed at some girl loud enough for my mother to tell me to keep it down.
Always more forgiving, TJ said softly, “She wasn't that bad.”
“Oh come on. She was terrible.”
Once in a while a contestant appeared who was just tears-streaming-down-your-face talented, and we would toast each other with our
and say, “There it is.” We always cheered for the people from Baltimore no matter how bad they were.
But there were no Baltimoreans on the show this fat camp eve. No talent either. Tonight was a rerun. The real envy didn't come until fall when the new season started. In this episode, talentless rich kids crooned crapfully and danced like the floor needed humping. As minor consolation, an eight-year-old magician stumbled onto the stage. His act was predictably lame. In the end, Eugene Gold, Envy's meanest judge, imparted this to the boy: “Find another pursuit, young man. A magician you'll never be.” In spite of himself, TJ smiled a little.
This made me appreciate TJ's talent even moreâhow when he did an illusion he made it look so easy, like you, the person watching, were responsible for making it happen. Like the magic resided in the observer, not the dumbass bird he trained to fly out of your hair. Thinking about his skill made me want to kiss him. Thinking about kissing him made me want to sleep with him, and thinking about scrumping him only reminded me that tomorrow morning I was headed to fat camp. I tried not to think about Utopia, the evil fat farm at the excuse-me-I'm-a-genius-at-California-University-of-the-Pacific. Instead, I held out for a miracleâa giant boulder to fall on the minivan rendering it impossible to drive. An escaped unabomber, murderer, cannibal terrorizing cross-country drivers. A rapidly spreading eye disease that made fat people look thin. Anything to keep me here. Away from Utopia, next to TJ.
ENDED without a miracle. No boulder. No cannibal either. There was only an infomercial TJ and I were obligated to view because the couch had sucked the remote under one of its cushions.
The commercial featured a giant fish bowl filled with multi-colored scraps of paper. Xylophone sounds tinkled in the background. At first, I thought the commercial was for some kind of craft, like moon sand or a Chia Pet. Then a voice blasted out from the TV:
DO YOU NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT?
I was lifting scratchy cushions, rummaging for the remote. When I heard the voice, I turned around.
HAVE YOU TRIED EVERY DIET AND FAILED?
On the screen that glass bowl glittered again, rainbow swirls of paper spinning around.
I WANT TO HELP YOU
, the voice roared.
No doubt I had heard various diet infomercials a million times, but never during prime time and never one quite as hypnotic. I couldn't look away. TJ seemed rapt too. We studied the screen where the fish bowl overflowed with paper like jewels.
PAY ATTENTION. THESE NEXT FIFTEEN MINUTES COULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE.
There was something about this voice. Like a magnet.
“It's not about food,” a lady wearing a giant sunhat said. She lounged beside a pool, the glittery bowl positioned next to her sandaled feet. “I weighed two hundred pounds and thought it was about food.”
Then the woman stood, dropped her towel, and twirled in a gold bikini. “But I discovered it's about forgiveness,” she said.
“Hey!” TJ said. “My boss went on this diet.”
I shrugged. TJ's boss at Rent-My-Ride went on every diet.
, the voice intoned,
IT'S ABOUT FORGIVENESS.
That was when the room darkened a notch. It was dusk, and Baltimore had just breathed its last streak of sunlight against the pavement outside. The city's gutter smells and sounds drifted past the open basement window. I should've told TJ to go home. It was getting late. And it was hotâtoo hot to even have the television on, which seemed to breathe fire. But I couldn't talk or move. Even TJ didn't get up to excuse himself and walk to his row house across the street.
Like my sofa had been slicked with paste, we watched this commercial as intently as we had
. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen entire minutes. There were testimonials from people all over the country. Men and women held up size 20 pants, size 24 skirts, 3XL sweats. Then they pirouetted in something slinky, showed off their skinny jeans, patted their flat tummies.
“The Forgiveness Diet,” they all chimed, was how they did it.
, said the voice.
WITH OUR PROVEN THREE-PART SYSTEM YOU CAN DROP THAT UNWANTED WEIGHT. INSTANTLY.
On the screen, a middle-aged guy stood before the ocean.
“Hi, I'm Michael Osbourne, and I invented The Forgiveness Diet. At twenty-seven years old and three hundred pounds, I was carrying too much weight and too many burdens. I decided to write everyone's secrets on a piece of paper. All mine too. Then I put that paper inside a bucket. Enough, I said to myself. It's time to forgive them.
“Before I knew it, the weight vanished. And yours will too. You can read about my innovative approach to mercy weight loss in my new book. If you call now, we'll even throw in your very own Forgiveness Jar to get things started. For free. Free! Call now to find out more about this amazing opportunity. Come on, what do you have to lose?”
The corners of his mouth lifted as if attached to strings.
He turned and ran out into frothy surf.
A phone number flashed across the screen.
“Maybe you should buy the book,” TJ said shyly.
“Why?” I asked, still staring at the television.
“Because my boss lost mad weight. And fast!”
I rolled my eyes. TJ's boss was always trying to thrust TJ onto better things. Like herself. He nudged me gently. “If it worked you wouldn't have to leave for camp tomorrow. You could see me graduate. Watch me audition.”
“You mean you don't want me to go either?”
“I mean you could stay here. Just buy the book.”
“I don't have a credit card,” I said.
“What about PayPal? Order the e-book.”
The fish bowl, on the screen again, brimmed with folded papers. Fat people walked up to the jar, kissed their papers, and dropped them inside. As they skipped off it appeared they lost the weight before our very eyes.
“You can do that,” said TJ. “Just write down the names of people who have pissed you off.”
“I'm sure the book has some kind of specific directions. There must be more to it than that.”
“Maybe not,” said TJ. “My boss said she just had to forgive her boyfriend for cheating on her and forgive her fingers for stealing change out of the rental cars, and she lost like ten pounds.” TJ stared at his Converse. “Bee, you have a lot of people to forgive. Maybe all that pissiness is stuck inside you making you big, like that voice said. It makes sense in a way.”
I bristled. “It makes absolutely no sense.”
TJ removed his glasses and rubbed them on his shirt, a ritual he only performed when something bothered him. “You could make it like a bucket list. Write everything down like in those long letters you used to write.”